Have you ever seen the movie TAPS that came out in 1981? I had to go through something like that back when I was a kid. It was the summer of 1983 and I was 10 years old. I was in public school at the time. It was the last day of school and it was about to let out for the summer. My third grade teacher needed to speak with my Mother because she had bad news to tell her. I was waiting in class until my Mother came to pick me up and she didn't know about the bad news, yet. I saw all the kids running around free ready to enjoy a hot, summer break. Mom finally arrives and she saw that I wasn't happy and she talked to the teacher. My third grade teacher told my Mother that I failed and I had to repeat the grade. My Mom turned white! She was calm with the teacher, but when we got to the car she let me have it and I took it. "Wait till your Father hears about this!" That's just what I needed. Round two with more verbal abuse and a whipping for the knockout punch.
I remember I had to go to a Doctor's appointment for a check-up and while we were waiting, Mom started to cry. I never liked to see her that way. She took it bad but gee whiz it wasn't the end of the world.
I know the sound of the Old Man's car pulling up the drive way and I had a few extra seconds to enjoy my freedom. I couldn't hear what my Mother told my Father, but I heard him yelling for me. I entered the living room. "Sit down, boy!"
When I was a kid I was really into playing Army with the other boys in the neighborhood. I had the entire out-fit, toy guns, fake grenades, you name it and I had it. We used to have BB gun fights in the woods. We didn't really aim at each other, and sometimes you get carried away and took one square in the chin that left a big welt. So the Old Man says in a stern tone, "I'm gonna send you to military school since you like to dress up like a soldier!" I didn't have room to breathe. I didn't know what to say or how to take it. I don't remember if I got a beating that day. The Old Man made some contacts and he found a place out in Tennessee.
This older guy comes to my house one day and I don't know who he was, and I remember him saying that "I think you're gonna do alright over there." I didn't ask questions. I left it at that.
My folks and I drove out to Tennessee.
From the last day of school up until we left Florida, it was like I didn't know these people. Like I wasn't their Son or something. It was a strange feeling, and the entire trip was quiet. It felt like I was going to the gallows pole or to a chain gang or whatever place you could think of where they kept criminals.
We arrived to a place what it looked to me like a bunker. It didn't look like a school and there was a big military tank near the entrance of the place. That place was something else to a ten year old kid, I felt like I was in a military hell. I didn't like it from the start. I was away from home and before I knew it I was going to be a G.I. JOE. My folks talked to somebody that was in charge for several moments and I just stared at that tank like it was going to run over me. Soon my Old Man unloaded the back of the car which was a trunk like they use in the military. They gave me a hug, and drove off. I watched them drive away on the gravel road. This is the first time that I would be away from my folks for a period of six weeks that totaled to about 42 days at a place called 'Camp Whoopee'.
I wasn't going to be staying at that bunker and that was good because the place gave me the creeps. I was taken in a cargo van through a trail of deep woods and got to a location where it looked like the set of camp crystal lake from the movie Friday The 13th. There was a cabin for the boys on one side and a cabin for the girls on the other. There was a mess hall next to the girls area and another section for the bathrooms and showers. There was a gun range, and an archery area. There was an Olympic size pool further down the trail. There was a classroom in the boys cabin. This wasn't going to be fun, and I don't know what this was going to teach me, just because I failed the third grade?
I forget how many staff there were and I was the first cadet to arrive at this camp. When I entered the boys cabin, it was just like in the army movies where you see two rows of bunk beds. He told me to choose one and I did which was off to the corner on the bottom. He told me to make my bed and to put my trunk in front of the bunk. After I did that, I had nothing to do but kill time and that was bad because I was already getting home sick and my folks just left a few hours ago. I wrote my folks a letter saying that I didn't want to be there anymore, and then I cried. After I finished writing my letter I searched out one of the staff guys and I'm still crying. He coldly told me that it wasn't time to send mail and to get back in the cabin. I was already thinking of escaping, but I didn't go through with it. The first night was rough because I was the only kid in the entire camp. I didn't sleep much that night.
The next day this kid Jason arrives. He's three years older than me and he takes the top bunk. Then little by little the cabin fills up with boys ranging from 8 to 18 years old. We were all mixed in together under one roof and I didn't like being stuck in there with a bunch of guys that I didn't know. Some of them knew each other because they go to the military academy which was that bunker of a school where I arrived a day earlier. Most of the older boys seemed to like me for some reason and they protected me from the kids around my age. I don't remember why they didn't like me, I was always quiet and I never bothered no one. They would pick a fight with me and before I had a chance to defend myself there was always a big kid there to protect me. I never asked why they'd stick up for me, they just did. Just like we all had to sleep under one roof, we all had to take a shower in two groups, one group in the morning and the other group in the evening. My group was in the morning. I was not big on the idea about taking a shower with a bunch of guys. Some of the older kids were in my group and it was the first time I seen pubic hairs, and I felt embarrassed because I was a hairless twerp. So for the rest of the six weeks I took a shower only two times. That was it! You're probably thinking I had to stink after a while? And the answer is 'NO'! I didn't stink and nobody said anything about it and how I got away from not taking a shower, I don't remember? One time the bathroom was locked and I had to take a crap really bad and this one kid suggested I go to the woods. We were camping on that particular night and so I took a crap in my pants inside of my sleeping bag. Would you believe that it didn't stink up the tent? Because there was four of us to a tent and nobody said sh*t about it.
It was also part of our training to shoot rifles at the range. I wasn't too good at hitting the target and the staff had to keep track of our scores for the sake of keeping it on file. One time I hit that target pretty good because it was close to the bull's-eye. I didn't like shooting those rifles, but I did pretty good with archery! I nailed the bull's-eye every once in a while and it was fun to pull back the bow and fire the arrow. To me, it just took more skill than to lay there with a gun and press on the trigger.
Every morning when we woke up we had to peel the ticks off us. If we couldn't reach a spot on our back then the other guy would pluck it for you. I had ticks all over my head and neck and every morning was the same routine. This one kid had a tick where the sun don't shine and it was glued to his ball sack. He was on his own with that one. When it came for chow, junk food was not allowed and no unhealthy eating was served. Tea and water were the only drinks we had. No soda or fruit juice!
That was the best diet around and Hollywood should copy it.
The pool was located deep in the woods away from the cabins and it was a strange place to set up an Olympic size pool. The boys and the girls were mixed in and it was one of the few times when we were. I think this was the time when I began to notice how girls looked in those bathing suits! There were several teenage girls swimming around and I couldn't get my eyes off of them. Girls around my age I didn't pay any attention to, but those older broads had curves in the right places and reminded me of Bo Derek running down the beach.
Once in a while they was nothing to do but hoarse play and one time I went through Jason's trunk and found a stack of diapers. I think he had some bladder problems or something. I told some of the other kids and one of them took a diaper and urinated inside it and stuck it back in his trunk. Jason walks in and I was laughing so hard and he finds the wet diaper and assumed that I did it because I was the one laughing. He started to cry and chased me around until he caught me. He was belting me really good but I crouched and covered up and kept on laughing.
I didn't know that there was an obstacle course in those woods, and it was like boot camp where you had to jump over stacks of logs about 6 feet high, and things to duck under, swing on ropes, climb bars, this and that... Just like in the military. I slept good that night because I was tired! I think it was a week before the end of the six weeks and we had a competition against other boys in the barracks. We were matched up evenly by age and weight. I don't remember what each event was but I know for a fact that I beat this kid in each one of them. After the competition was over all the kids cheered me on and one of the older boys carried me on his shoulders. I was a champ that night. We were also presented with medals of our achievements and I received six in archery and one in riflery.
The day before we left I had one more argument with some kid. What was different about this time was that none of the older boys backed me up like they used to. Maybe this was a test if I could take care of myself? Well, this kid kept egging me on and I blew my top. I picked up the nearest thick stick that looked like a police club and I swung it at him a few times before he stopped bothering me. He apologized and shook my hand.
Now, it was time to say goodbye and we went back to the bunker to get fitted for uniforms. The school season was about to start and I didn't want to stay in the TAPS world. I flew back on a plane and it was the first time I've been in one. I kept praying the entire flight and I threw up inside a bag that this lady gave me. I arrived at Tampa International Airport and when I saw my folks for the first time I felt like Christian Bale's character in the film 'Empire of the Sun' in the moment when he was reunited with his parents and he doesn't recognize them. Of course, I never told them that. I begged them not to take me back to that place again and that I'll do good in school. They kept their word and I kept mine and I never failed a grade again. But I went to summer school a lot!
After 25 years or so I don't know if 'Camp Whoopee' is still there or that bunker of a school. I never bothered to check it out. I still think about those guys that I had to shack up with for 42 days. I missed them. And I never considered a military career after that experience. That's all it was... An experience in a boy's life.